A Feast of Cousins
Consanguinity was Cousin Tessa’s new favorite word. The one she whispered to me last week, when we made sticky, bone-crunching love in her bedroom. Tess collected words like pennies, snatching them up from wherever, setting them sideways and spinning them around, before she lost interest and tossed them aside for a newer, shinier word. She did the same with lovers.
Okay, that’s not fair. But as Aunt Louisa would say, it’s true.
Back to consanguinity. Of course Tess knew what it meant. Family. The thicker-than-water blood. She had a point, I guess, because our family does stick close. Thanksgiving. Easter. Baby showers. (Even the Our Lady of Polenta Feast, as my brother Eugene says.) Two things I know. That we’re always celebrating something, and Great—Aunt Gabriella is always cooking an enormous family dinner.
“Christmas Eve, my favorite,” Uncle Teo said to me, pouring out the white wine. “Come, I hope you’re hungry, Maura.”
I smiled and took the glass he offered, looked around for a seat. Christmas, and Christmas Eve, meant a stuffed and overheated dining room, long loud conversations that unraveled and rewove themselves, and a gorgeous soup of smells-cinnamon and baked apples, tangy pine and crushed peppermint. And tonight, the fresh baked haddock and breaded flounder, shrimp with hot sauce, and more. Always more.
Spotting an empty chair, I squeezed in between my brother Eugene and my cousin Donny. Uncle Sal was passing around the dishes of noodles and anchovies. Across the table, Aunt Delores and Aunt Louisa bent close, plunged into talk about their kids, while Great-Uncle Umberto argued politics with my father. It was like fireworks and cannons, the noise, but somehow we all managed to keep talking and eating, eating and talking.
Eugene snagged a handful of shrimp and popped them into his mouth. “Hey, sis.”
A shriek directly behind my chair made me jump. “Antonio!” My cousin Lia scooped up my nephew Antonio and deftly removed the fork from his grubby hands. “You nutty kid. You might stab someone with that.”
Little Antonio screamed happily and squeezed his aunt, who carried him back to the kids’ table, singing a nonsense song. I thought she hadn’t seen me, but she gave me a passing wave before turning her attention back to Antonio.
Good, capable, dutiful Cousin Lia. None of the kids were hers, but she always ended up watching over the children at these things. Just as Aunt Juliette helped in the kitchen. Just as Uncle Sal always vidded the whole evening. Tradition, Sal called it. Like a thick knitted muffler that kept you warm, and sometimes made it hard to breathe.
And here came Sal, with a tiny new vidcorder in his meaty fist, swooping in between the tables. “Formaggio,” he cried. “Say cheese, Antonio. Oh my god, the kid’s gonna burp anchovies. Hey, Teo, did I tell you how these new vidcorders pick up smells, too?”
“…he’s shipping out next week, Delores…”
“…hear about Pauly and Anita getting back together…”
“…have some more noodles…”
“…I think I’ll have some salad…”
“…no more room on the table…”
“…always more room…”
More wine appeared in my glass, even though I didn’t ask for it. Cousin Donny winked at me. “Cheers, cuz.”
His face was sweatier than usual, and his muskrat aftershave made me gag when he leaned too close. I mumbled a hello-and-thanks and turned to Eugene. “So, how’s the new job?”
“Good enough. What about you?”
I shrugged. “Same as usual. Hey, do you know if Tess will show up tonight?”
Before my brother could answer, Donny leaned in. “Yeah, she’s coming tonight. She v-mailed Grandma about half an hour ago to say she’d be late. At least, I think she did. I was kinda busy.”
He leered at me, and I shifted my chair a couple inches back and away. That’s when I noticed the mesh glove on Donny’s left hand. “What the hell is that?”
Another leer. “Early Christmas present. Watch.”
He wriggled his fingers, and a funny look came over his face. Good god, I thought yanking my gaze away. I’d heard about those things, advertised on lurid X-rated websites. Cousin Donny hadn’t changed since we were eight and he tried to catch me naked in my bath on his camera-phone. Only now he’d figured out how to jerk off in public and not get arrested.
A loud popping noise caught everyone’s attention. “Umberto!” came a cry from the kitchen. The next minute, my Great-Aunt Gabriella staggered through the doorway, wreathed in clouds of acrid smoke. “System crash!” she wailed.
I sighed. Last month, Great-Uncle Umberto had replaced all the kitchen appliances with the latest stainless steel AI models. Everything had sensors and links and touchpads and programmable features. It was all supposed to making cooking easier, but it turned out that the new AIs had a few bugs.
Cousin Nicci wiped her mouth with a napkin and slid from her seat. “No problem, Aunty. I know how to jig the system.”
Nicci, Gabriella, and Juliette vanished into the kitchen. The roar of conversation swelled up in their wake.
“Good thing Nicci knows her hardware,” Donny said. He was busy stuffing his face, using only one hand.
“Not like some,” Eugene said with a grin.
Donny had just opened his mouth to toss back an insult when the front door banged open. Tessa ran through, laughing and chattering, and exclaiming how cold it was outside. Her cheeks were ruddy, her black eyes bright with mischief. Dark hair tumbled from underneath her knitted cap, which sparkled with miniature Christmas lights. Oh yes. Already my mood got better. I lifted my hand to wave, when I saw Cousin Lucia.
Lovely Lucia, who wore a bright red cashmere dress that barely covered her thighs. Uncle Teo called her the family angel, but seeing her slip an arm around Tessa’s waist, I thought she looked more like an imp.
Not fair. Not even really true.
“What’s the word, Tess?” someone called out.
“Serendipitous!” Tess replied with a laugh.
I closed my eyes, feeling sick. Oh yes. I could just imagine how Tess picked that particular word. Next to me, Eugene muttered something about some cousins being idiots, but I ignored him. He knew about me and Tess. Everyone did. But the last thing I wanted right now was pity.
One good thing about family dinners: you eat. And if you eat, no one bothers you. So I loaded up my plate with the baked flounder and noodles with cheese and spinach bread, and with my aunts and uncles and cousins and parents all chattering over and around me, I ate. But all that time, I could see Tess and Lucia flirting with each other, bumping shoulders and giggling and who knows what else.
Just like Tess and me at Thanksgiving. Or my parents’ anniversary celebration last week. Or…
…or that lovely luscious first time. Through a bright haze of tears, I could see the images, like ghosts over today’s feast.
Tess giving me secretive smiles all through the Labor Day picnic. Tess cornering me in the second-floor guest room, after Aunt Juliette’s birthday party, where I went to fetch my jacket. Hey, she whispered. Don’t leave yet. I have a present for you, too. And before I knew it, we were wrapped up in each other, Tess giving me nibble-kisses over my cheeks and lips and throat, until my knees turned into water and we both fell over into a pile of leather and wool coats…
“Presents!” called out Uncle Teo. “Time for the gift exchange!”
Shrieking even louder, the littler cousins thundered into the living room. My mother and Aunt Juliette and Lia stayed behind to clear the tables, while Uncle Teo took charge of handing out gaudily wrapped packages, some of them smothered in ribbons, and Aunt Delores trailed after him, picking up discarded wrapping paper, and writing down who gave what.
Nothing ever changed, I thought, rubbing my forehead, which ached from the heat and the noise. Cousins yelling and laughing. Cousins drinking too much. Cousins pretending that tonight was the best night of the year. Part of me wanted to see where Tess and Lucia had gone. Part of me knew better.
A whiff of roses wafted past, sweet and soft. “Hey,” murmured a voice in my ear.
Cousin Lia knelt beside me, a tumbler of water in one hand. “You look like you could use some aspirin,” she said.
I shook my head. A mistake, because my headache-addled stomach gave a lurch. Without saying anything, Lia wrapped my hands around the tumbler. For a moment, our hands made layers, mine cold, her warm and soft and strong.
“You filled up my hands,” I said, stupidly.
“So open up.” She popped two aspirin deftly into my mouth. “Now drink the whole glass full. Want some coffee, too?”
When I finished off the water, she took the glass, but lingered a few moments. She wore her dark brown hair coiled around her head, but a few strands had worked loose-tugged free by the irrepressible Antonio, no doubt. Lia tucked one curl behind her ear. “So. Any good presents?” she asked me.
I shrugged. “A couple. The usual.”
Lia gave me a crooked smile. “Nothing ever changes. Sometimes that’s a good thing. Sometimes…”
“Yeah,” I said, standing up. This time, my stomach didn’t protest the sudden movement. “Well, I think I’ll go home.”
She said nothing more, but when I came back with my coat, I found all my presents neatly packaged into one, easy-to-carry bag. Lia herself had vanished.
Soft brown shadows, threaded with light. Rippling, as though stirred by a woman’s quick breath. Soft lips grazed my cheeks and throat and breasts. The spicy scent, warmed by skin and sweat, filled the air. Maura, Maura, Maura, oh yes, that’s exactly where…
I woke late and miserable. A sour taste coated my tongue. That would be from the glass of straight bourbon I drank after I got home. A headache lurked behind my eyes, which felt grainy from the wrong kind of sleep.
No wonder I had such bad dreams.
Remnants of those dreams flickered in and out of recall, along with little flames of warmth that teased me in all the wrong places. I groaned. Cousins. I’m sick of them.
And there would be more cousins today. More aunts and uncles and gossip. Great-Aunt Gabrielle and Juliette would have had started cooking at dawn for the Christmas day feast. There would be gnocchi, of course. And roast turkey. Asparagus drowning in a buttery death. Not to mention Aunt Louisa’s fabulous apple pies.
My stomach ached just thinking about all that food. First the Tums, I decided. Then aspirin and warm ginger ale, followed by coffee. Neck and shoulders creaking, I levered myself upright. For a hideous moment, my balance tilted, as though I were navigating the world underwater. No more bourbon, I swore. Especially not after white wine.
A needle-hot shower helped ease the stiffness, and the medicine settled my stomach well enough that I could face the morning. Coffee mug in hand, I shuffled into my living room, where I checked my v-phone, skimming through the voice and text messages left by half a dozen relatives. When I came to the end, I leaned back in my chair and closed my eyes.
You expected a call, didn’t you? Idiot.
No, I expected-a good-bye, perhaps.
I sighed and let my face soak in the scent and warmth from my steaming coffee. Maybe, just maybe I could skip Christmas dinner this year. No. Bad idea. Aunt Delores the human vid-machine would never let me forget. Besides, Grandma Rosalie looked awful frail the night before. I didn’t want to miss any time with her.
Another mug of coffee. A leftover raisin bagel steamed into life. (Like me, I thought, inhaling the coffee.) I rifled through the bag with my gifts, the one Lia had so thoughtfully packed for me, and started making my own notes for thank-you cards. Three gift identical cards to BooksNBytes. (Those from my brother.) A thermal scarf with solar heating threads woven into the yarn. (That from my Aunt Carlotta.) A mini vid-card with a flash of my youngest niece laughing. A bottle of cheap air freshener from Donny. (Idiot, I thought.) DVDs. Movie tickets. Refrigerator magnets. A bottle of my favorite perfume.
Then, at the bottom, underneath a layer of green tissue paper, I found a square black envelope. Hmmmm. No name. No imprint. How odd.
I sliced the flap open and pulled out a thick rectangular card, glossy and black, with a wafer-thin connector port around the edge. As I tilted the card back and forth, silvery dots coalesced into letters that glided across its surface, only to dissolve as they slipped over the edge.
Je Ne Sais Quoi.
Choissisez nous pour le ravissement.
I parsed the first message. “I know not what” Huh? What was that supposed to mean? Some sort of joke? No, wait. That had to be the name or catchphrase for the…the whatever this card was for. And Merry Christmas was obvious. The third one, I had to struggle with, and finally retrieved my dog-eared French dictionary from college.
Choose us for…
My throat squeezed shut. That last word meant delight, or ravishment, or seduction. Tess, I thought. Tess making a very bad joke. What was she thinking? Or was this her idea for a good-bye present?
I flung the card into the wastebasket and went back to my thank-you notes, but my hands shook so badly, I had to rewrite three cards. And typing emails was not an option. Not in our family.
Finally I gave up and pressed both hands against my eyes, listening to my pulse beat a tired tattoo.
Of course. It was Christmas. Tess had taken up a new lover. And here I sat, in my tiny apartment, where every metal-framed designer print, every muted color and expanse of polished wood, suddenly felt like an anti-choice. No wonder I felt an odd vertigo going between here and Great-Aunt Gabriella’s house crammed with knick-knacks from the twentieth century.
Vertigo. Another of Tess’s recent favorites.
I sighed again. Another four or five hours, and I would be immersed in that old-fashioned world again. Facing Tess and Lucia. Maybe it was a kind of good-bye present, but there was only one way to find out.
I flipped open my cell and dialed the familiar number. One chime, two, three. Maybe Tess wasn’t even home.
“Hello?” said Lucia.
I took a deep breath. “Hey, Lucia. It’s Maura. Is Tess awake yet?”
“Um, yeah. Are you mad?”
“Maybe. But that’s not why I called.”
“Then why-Oh, never mind. Hold on a minute.”
A muffled conversation followed between Lucia and Tess. Before I could lose my nerve, the cell changed hands. “Hey,” Tess said. She sounded wary.
“Merry Christmas,” I said. “Yes, I’m unhappy. No, that’s not why I called. This might sound stupid, but did you sneak a gift card into my bag last night?”
There was a moment’s puzzled silence, then, “Oh no! I forgot to bring yours. No, God, I… I got you a book. I’ll bring it tonight. Really. Um, what kind of gift card?”
I clapped a hand over my mouth and shook with silent laughter. Tess. Dear, forgetful, eternally curious Tess. “Something from a place called Je Ne Sais Quoi,” I told her.
“Je Ne Sais Quoi?” Her voice scaled up. “Oh. My. God. Someone loves you, Maura. That’s the spiff new techno-spa that just opened last month. Très expensive. Hey, maybe Donny gave you the card.”
I shuddered. “What a horrible thought. Thank you for mentioning that possibility.”
“You’re welcome,” she said brightly. “See you tonight.”
Cousins, I thought, as I clicked off the phone. Still shaking my head over Tess, I fished the gift card from the wastebasket. This time, when I tilted it just right, a cell number appeared, shimmering like raindrops against the black surface. So. A treat with no name, and therefore no strings attached. And just for me. Did it really matter who the giver was?
Still not certain, I called the number. Amazingly, they were open, and when I described the card, the woman gave a soft laugh. “Ah, yes. Our Christmas treats are quite popular. You might even come today if you like,” she said with a velvety-dark purr. “You will need one hour, no more. We guarantee total relaxation.”
Good god, I thought. But curiosity ran all through our family, and one hour gave me plenty of time before Christmas dinner. Better than staying here and feeling sorry for myself.
I brushed my hair, changed into better clothes. Then armed with directions from MapQuest, I drove to the new Ninth Square project downtown, where a cluster of boutiques and expensive restaurants had appeared during the summer. Parking, usually nonexistent, was no problem today.
And there, between a coffee shop and a chocolatière, I saw a discreet illuminated sign that said Je Ne Sais Quoi.
The front door hissed open as I approached. Oh very nice, I thought, noting the fresh orchids in the windows, the chocolate-brown carpets, the tasteful photographs of landscape stills from all over the world. There was no particular scent in the air, just a fresh clean aroma that made my skin prickle with energy.
“Good morning, cousin.”
I jumped. Behind the reception desk sat my cousin Lia, dressed in dark blue wool trousers and a darker blue silk shirt, and with her hair pulled back in a shining brown cascade.
“What are you doing here?” I demanded.
She laughed. “Working between semesters. Didn’t Aunt Delores tell you? Oh that’s right. You left before she started her recital of who did what and when. So what are you doing here?”
I hemmed a bit, sounding like Tess. “Um, mystery present.”
She grinned. “Those are the best kind. May I have the card please?”
I handed it over. Lia inserted the gift card into a slot on her desk. Her eyes widened slightly. “Here,” she slid a clipboard with a pen over the desk, “fill these out while I check the equipment.”
But Lia had disappeared through an arched doorway. I skimmed over the form’s questions. Name, address, profession, classical or jazz or other, favorite books…
I jotted down the answers, wondering if I could answer these same questions for Tess. Or if she could do the same for me. Families. We hardly knew each other, in spite of crowding together every week or two. My cousin Lia, for example. At family dinners, she tended kids and acted the good niece. It was easy to forget she went to grad school for microbiology, and was heading for a research job. Then again, we all slid into different skins at those affairs. Me. Lia. Eugene. Even Donny, in his own weird way.
Lia reappeared and took the clipboard from me. “Go through here,” she said, pointing to a doorway on my left, “and into dressing room number three. You’ll find robes and slippers, if you want them. Remember to put the mesh suit on first if you want the light massage.”
Mesh suit? Light massage?
Puzzled, I went through the doorway Lia indicated, and down a short hallway, which ended in a plain octagonal room. Four white doors faced me, all of them closed. The dressing rooms, obviously.
I opened the door labeled “three.”
No wonder Tess had squeaked. Antique prints hung on creamy beige walls, polished wood edged the ceiling and doors, and when I stepped inside, a dusky rose-colored carpet cushioned my footsteps. But it was definitely a dressing room, with a shower stall, locker, hooks for my clothes, and a padded bench before a table stocked with brushes and combs and other toiletries.
The door swung shut behind me, and a woman’s voice said, “If you wish to use the locker, touch the fingerprint pad with your index finger and thumb. This will key the lock for your visit.”
The woman’s voice sounded low and soft, but with a faint blur that made me think this was a real voice filtered through electronics. They do it with motion detectors, I told myself. And heat sensors. And pre-recorded instructions. Still, my mouth turned dry at the thought of someone observing my movements. I swallowed and touched the keypad.
The locker clicked open. Inside I found a soft cotton robe, which smelled of fresh soap, and the suit Lia mentioned, which turned out to be a full-body leotard made from a stretchy material. There were even fingers and toes and a hood. Curious, I ran my fingers over the silky mesh.
After another glance around, I changed from my clothes into the leotard. It fit me perfectly, and the material clung to my skin as I stretched and twisted, testing its comfort. “When you are ready, please go through the next door and lie down.”
I twitched, then scowled. Resisted the urge to make rude signals to the invisible camera. Was that faint laughter, or the ventilation system? Whichever, I ignored it, pulled on a robe and stacked my clothes and purse in the locker. Another touch of my fingers to the lock, and the door clicked shut. At the same moment, the second door swung open on its own.
Motion detectors, I repeated to myself, but my nerves were jumping as I peered into the massage room.
It was empty, except for a long padded bench with a pillow at one end. Stepping inside, I had the sense of floating through an ocean. Floor, ceiling, walls were painted in shades of green, rippling from pale green to streaks of emerald. The bench itself was covered in soft black leather, making an anchor point in that unsettling room.
“Take off your robe and lie down, please.”
Again, that contralto voice.
I let the robe drop onto the floor and stretched out face-down on the bench. The leather was softer and warmer than I expected, and had the faintest scent of roses, which I found soothing. No sooner was I comfortable than music started to play from unseen speakers-a slow, contemplative piano piece. Modern, but I couldn’t recognize the composer. Between the soft perfume, the lighting, and the music, it would be easy to fall asleep, but I doubted that was the point of this mystery gift. Hopefully the attendant would arrive soon.
Somewhere, an unseen machine whirred into life. A moment later, warmth rippled down the length of my body. Startled, I jerked my head up.
“Hush,” said the voice. “This is the light massage.”
Still unnerved, I rested my head on the pillow. Now the music changed slightly-a clarinet joined the piano, weaving a counter-melody-and the dimmed, making the walls look even more watery. Another ripple of warmth circled my legs, merged, then divided to travel down both arms and brush my palms.
A cello sounded a rising arc of notes. The piano answered with a brighter trill, joined by the clarinet’s throaty voice, which reminded me of the invisible woman, and lights flickered over me, echoing the path of warmth that touched and teased my skin. Like whisper soft feathers, stroking my body. Like silk-soft hair brushing over my skin.
It shouldn’t be this easy, I thought. That’s what happened with Tess. That’s why it hurts so much.
“Are you crying?” said the voice.
“I can’t help it,” I whispered.
“Then let me help,” came the answer.
Tiny electric pulses, counterpoints in sensation, just like the counterpoints of the music, tickled my cheek where it rested against my arms. Tiny kisses nibbled my throat, my fingers. I wanted to protest, to say this was no massage-not alone, watched by a stranger-but my greedy body refused to obey.
The pinpricks came faster now, spiraling outward from my belly toward my breasts and thighs, light stings that sparked a flame in my belly. Fire kisses running from my scalp to my toes, dancing over my skin and drawing my nipples to hard points. Another moment and I would reach a climax.
What if I electrocute myself? I thought hazily.
Soft laughter sounded in my ear. Or was it the music, which had quickened its tempo? Flutes and piccolos trilled brightly, the piano thundered now, and the violins and cellos cried, while the suit flexed and contracted, as though an enormous hand caressed me. Sweet, soft, hard, and sure. This lover’s hand knew me. I was sobbing and crying out, beyond caring who watched. Again, and again, the heat flashed over my body. The mesh rippled like fingers from an invisible lover, squeezing my breasts, diving between my legs, and licking me with fire, then plunging into my vagina-though surely that was not possible-once and twice and more, until that last delicious explosion that left me limp and sprawled on the bench.
And with the tide receding, so too the music and the warmth; the flutes and piccolos danced away, next the violins and cellos, leaving only the piano in a soft slow melody, while the suit clasped me loosely.
I lay there, breathing in the sweat and satisfaction.
“Lovely,” I murmured.
“Satisfied?” said the invisible woman.
“Oh yes,” I breathed. “Thank you.”
“The gift is mine.”
She did not speak again. For a while, I did nothing but stare off to one side, until the last few sparkles and ripples of passion faded away. Only then could I coax my body to stand and walk the few steps to the dressing room.
A brisk shower woke me up. I dressed, dried my hair, and returned to the reception area. Lia waited behind the desk, a curious smile on her face.
“Did you like the gift?” she asked.
Still unable to talk, I nodded.
Lia’s smile dimpled her cheeks. “You look thirsty. Would you like some water?”
Barely waiting for my nod, she disappeared a moment and returned with a large tumbler of sweet, cool water. Her hands wrapped around mine to steady the glass, reminding me of the night before. This close, I could easily smell her perfume.
…the scent of roses. A woman’s soft low voice…
All the clues shifted into place.
“You,” I whispered.
Lia went very still. Her friendly smile had vanished, replaced by a cautious look. “What about me?”
Even so, I noticed she had not removed her hands from mine. “You gave me the gift card, didn’t you? You set up this appointment.”
A long silence. Her answer, when it came, was like a sigh. “Yes.”
Please, not because you felt sorry for me. Please, not that.
A faint blush edged her cheeks. Lia dropped her hands and turned away. “Do I really need to say why?”
A wisp of hair had escaped her hair clips. I set the glass aside and brushed the wisp back into place. Her blush deepened. “No,” I said softly. “You don’t need to say why. But were you going to keep this a secret? The gift, I mean.”
Her gaze flicked toward me, then to the floor. “Oh. Well. It all depended on you. Before last night…” She drew a deep breath. “Before, I didn’t think I had a chance. But I wanted to give you something special. Just because.”
I laughed shakily. “You certainly did that.”
Silence. We were both embarrassed, I guessed. Both unsure what to do next.
“How late are you working tonight?” I asked.
Lia gave me a faint smile. “You were the last appointment.”
“The last one, or the only one?”
She laughed and shook her head. Was that a yes or no? Hardly daring to breathe, I leaned forward to kiss her. A nibble-kiss, just at the edge of her mouth. It didn’t matter, her watching me before. This was new. This was, I thought, a little bit scary.
Lia slid her arms around my waist. Kissed me back. Tiny soft kisses that made my pulse flutter. “So,” she said, her breath tickling my face. “Are you going to the Christmas dinner?”
Not the question I expected. I drew back, uncertain. “Are you?”
“Of course. Aunt Delores would kill me if I wasn’t there to help with the kids.” She reached up and cupped my cheek in her warm palm, studied me with bright dark eyes. “But this year, I think I’m going to be very, very late.”
Laughing, I pulled her close and kissed her again.